Sri Lanka goes to the polls: Why it matters

An election commission worker carries a ballot box under police guard in Colombo on August 16, 2015.

Story highlights

  • Sri Lanka goes to the polls Monday to vote in a new parliament and with it, Prime Minister
  • Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa is poised to make a strong bid for the role
  • Party colleague and current President says he will not support Rajapaska's candidacy

Delhi (CNN)Just eight months after casting their ballots in a historic presidential election, Sri Lankans head back to the polls to pick a new parliament, from which a Prime Minister will be selected.

Once again, the imposing figure of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa looms over the small island country's future. We take a closer look at a country trying to put its bloody and turbulent past behind it.

    The key players

    Mahinda Rajapaksa likes to project himself as a "warrior king," and the former president is refusing to leave Sri Lankan politics without a fight. Rajapaksa was first elected president in 2005. He led a bloody, years-long military campaign against Tamil separatists, building upon his image as a no-nonsense wartime leader.
    A final push to victory came at an immense human cost: independent estimates suggest as many as 40,000 Tamil civilians were killed in the last months of the conflict.
    After winning re-election in 2010, Rajapaksa consolidated power by putting loyalists -- including members of his own family -- in top government positions. In a surprise reversal in January, Rajapaksa narrowly lost the presidential election to his former health minister Maithripala Sirisena.
    He is now hoping to win enough seats to force a path to becoming Prime Minister. Critics say he's "attempting to do a Putin," a reference to how Russian President Vladimir Putin became PM for a term before returning to the presidency as an all-powerful leader.
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    In Sri Lankan politics the President is more powerful than the Prime Minister, but the incumbent, Maithripala Sirisena, is a quiet figure. Sirisena has worked to reduce the powers of the presidency he won in January, with some success.
    However, stymied by a lack of support in parliament, he has struggled on other promised reforms to make Sri Lankan politics more transparent. Sirisena is part of the same party as Rajapaksa -- the Sri Lanka Freedom Party -- but he has openly said he will not support Rajapaksa's bid to become Prime Minister.
    In a letter to Rajapaksa last week, leaked to Sri Lanka's press, Sirisena wrote that Rajapaksa had displayed "blatant racism" against the country's minority Tamils and Muslims.
    Sirisena is instead supporting the country's sitting Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe. Wickremesinghe is the leader of the United National Party, a much smaller political outfit than the SLFP.
    Wickremesinghe is hoping to appeal to Sri Lanka's minority Tamils and Muslims to "send Rajapaksa into retirement," as he's been saying on the campaign trail, and consolidate the results of January's presidential vote.

    Demographics and democracy

    Sri Lanka is a small island nation of 21 million people; 15 million are expected to vote on Monday. Some three-fourths of Sri Lankans are ethnic Sinhalese, and predominantly Buddhist. Ethnic Tamils, largely Hindus, form the largest minority group in Sri Lanka. Around 10% of Sri Lankans are ethnic Moors, descendants of Arab traders.
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    Democracy in Sri Lanka is cleaved along ethnic lines. In recent years Rajapaksa has played to the fears of the majority Sinhalese, warning of a return to years of civil war if he is banished from power. Sirisena and Wickremesinghe are hoping to appeal to more secular Sinhalese, along with Tamils and Muslims, to bring the nation together after its brutal civil war in the 2000s.
    Monday's elections will be monitored closely by watchdogs. Three people have been reported killed so far in bursts of violence.
    "Sri Lanka has a long history of attackers getting away with election-related violence," says Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. 

    Global interest

    Sri Lanka is a small country, with a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of $75 billion according to the World Bank. But it has been among the world's fastest growing economies, expanding annually by 6.3% on average between 2002 and 2013. Again, according to the World Bank, growth has accelerated in the last five years as part of a "peace dividend resulting from reconstruction efforts and increased consumption."
    China and India, in particular, will watch these elections with great interest. Rajapaksa was widely seen as pro-China, courting Chinese money to boost development.
    India, meanwhile, has long feared China's role in building outposts around its periphery. In a recent essay, Indian commentator Brahma Chellaney wrote that the fusion of China's economic and military interests "risk turning Sri Lanka into India's Cuba" -- a reference to how the Soviet Union courted Fidel Castro's Cuba right on the United States' doorstep.
    In May, months after Rajapaksa was deposed as President, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Colombo to renew ties with the island nation. It was the first visit by a top U.S. diplomat in a decade. Kerry called for Sri Lanka's new government to collaborate with the United Nations in an investigation into human rights abuses and war crimes. The results of those investigations could implicate former president Mahinda Rajapaksa.
    The results of the vote are expected Tuesday.